The Final Case: A novel
“Ultimately, The Final Case is a thorough investigation into what makes the two main characters tick while providing readers truth about the human condition in that satisfying way only great fiction can do.”
The Final Case by David Guterson reads like memoir. So real is the illusion that the words are from a real-life narrator that readers may find themselves googling the names of coffee shops and people who appear in the novel.
“My father was a criminal attorney.” The first words of Guterson’s masterful new work. In that simple sentence we meet both the teller of the tale and his subject. The attorney and the assistant. The father and the son.
Identified as a courtroom drama, The Final Case is that, but it’s also so much more.
Woven into the case of death by abuse are two men in very different stages of their careers. Royal, the father, approaches his final case as he always has. Everyone deserves a defender. The law works because the guilty have someone in their corner, too, forcing the state to provide a solid case and carefully and accurately apply the law.
The narrator is a once successful novelist, now struggling to write, mid-career, but still concerned it could be the end.
The prologue starts with the father, but the first chapter starts with the son. “A while back, I stopped writing fiction.”
Again, a simple sentence that breathes life into this character. Why did he stop? What is that like? Is this actually David Guterson’s voice as he struggles as a writer? And his hard-won fiction is the story we read now? It all feels so true.
And yet, this is not memoir.
Part of what makes The Final Case sublime is how quiet it is. Our narrator describes the events that lead him to assist his father. The minor accident, which augers bigger things.
The narrator receives a call from his dad and describes the call to us. “Two things, he said. First, a tree had fallen in his yard. Second, he’d had a minor car accident. The downed tree, while a nuisance, could wait indefinitely. The accident, though, was a problem because his car was undrivable.”
But his father recognizes the larger picture. The car could be fixed, but his ability to drive it safely has vanished. An outward symbol of the end of his independence. A man finding his way through the “lasts” of his life. The last car he drives and the last drive he makes. What other lasts will he experience next?
Stepping up, our faltering novelist finds an outlet for his own indecisiveness. He will help his father with the case. Drive him to the courtroom, the jail, the homes of witnesses. He will become the person his father needs in his final days.
Their relationship is kind, thoughtful. He describes his father as “Unassuming, devoid of pretension, he challenged you not to like him; in his bargain-basement suits and clip-on ties, and with his silver hair laid back across his pate in combed striations, he charmed all comers.”
He is a man who takes on the worst of clients and the worst of cases.
Betsy and Delvin Harvey have been accused of killing their adopted child. The couple is white and deeply religious. Abigail—Abeba—came from Ethiopia expecting a better life and instead dies of hypothermia in the mud of the Harvey’s front yard.
The abuse sustained by Abeba remains etched on her body for the medical examiner to find. Bruises, malnutrition, hair shaved from her head.
But Royal plays his part in the machinery of justice, and takes the case, no matter his personal feelings about the accused.
Throughout the story we learn many things. We learn of Abeba’s journey to become Abigail Harvey of Mount Vernon, Skagit County, Washington. The horrors she fled from in Ethiopia, but also what she was forced to leave behind. We learn of the narrator’s wife, Alison. The sweet story of their meeting. We learn of the Harvey’s other children, and pieces of the couple themselves.
There are scenes in the courtroom. The judge, gavel in hand, reprimands the observers, “‘You are not participants in these proceedings. You are observers. And if you can’t keep your opinions to yourself, you’ll have to leave.’”
But there are also scenes of Abeba in the orphanage, the narrator and his father in the car, the narrator and his wife at home, the narrator and his struggles as a writer.
Beneath it all, is the question of identity. Are we defined by what we do? Does Royal hold his beliefs because he’s an attorney or is he an attorney because he holds his beliefs? Is Abigail the American daughter of a conservative Christian couple? Or is she Abeba, an Ethiopian girl who loses everything?
Who is the writer when he puts his words on a page, and what does it mean when that ability is gone?
This is a literary novel, the plot more deeply hidden than genre fiction. Rather than action upon action leading to a climax, we are taken on a journey of exploration and discovery into the meaning of justice, the nature of familial responsibilities, and the dynamic between fathers and sons.
Ultimately, The Final Case is a thorough investigation into what makes the two main characters tick while providing readers truth about the human condition in that satisfying way only great fiction can do.